All Systems Go! The Importance of KISS and CUDDLE

Jan 18, 2022

This week, we released Joe Simpson’s book, ‘All Systems Go!’ online for the first time. It takes a closer look at how public services and political leadership interact with human behaviour networks and systems. In an excerpt from the book, Joe explores the KISS and CUDDLE maxims in his most recent blog.

Given the current level of complexity, we can see why simple solutions do not work. We can also see why the tendency to revert to a great structural reorganisation, whilst giving the pretence of change, is normally offered as a substitute for change. Within a systems perspective, I would instead advocate the adoption of that rowing adage, ‘Does it make us go faster?’ Perhaps the best recent illustration of this has been Dave Beresford’s approach with Team Sky cycling. That involved a culture of continuous adaptation. Each adaptation might make only a marginal difference, but collectively they made the team world beaters.

I therefore propose that leaders adopt two maxims KISS and CUDDLE. Let’s take them in turn. Let us suppose I am a year 7 maths teacher – consider some of my challenges. I know what level my pupils should have reached by the end of year 6. I know where I aim to have got them by the end of year 7. But I have to grapple with a wide range of aptitudes and learning. Some will arrive at my class well behind others. My cohort may contain pupils who might be in gifted and talented programmes, and others with special needs. Some may be recent immigrants with very poor English. I have to consider group dynamics; is there a cohort who are disrupting others? Meanwhile, one or two may have very challenging home lives that mean others are taking an interest in the child. So expecting me to also engage in the whole systems thinking seems a step too far. Leaders have a task of trying to KISS: ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’, so staff can focus on their day jobs.

But leaders also need to Embrace CUDDLE: Compelling storytelling, Unbounded perspective, Dynamics, Devolution, Learning, and Emergence. With all this fluidity, there is a risk we will adopt a Que sera sera attitude. Instead, leaders must embrace:

1. Compelling storytelling

I prefer to talk about ‘storytelling’, though many of my colleagues prefer to talk about ‘public narrative.’ Either way, the aim is to develop compelling stories or narratives that motivate, engage and unify staff and citizens. As we have demonstrated in so much of our development work at the Leadership Centre, storytelling / narrative is a skill, but it is a skill that can be learned, and it is a skill that improves with practice. The golfer Gary Player famously summarised this with ‘Well, the harder I practice, the luckier I get.’

2. Unbounded perspective

The danger in any organisation is that it becomes introspective. This is particularly the case when the organisation faces unprecedented challenges. Yet any wider understanding of systems thinking requires leaders to look outwards, and to seek connections, otherwise leaders run the risk of being in the ‘echo chamber’, hearing only internal voices. Leaders need to understand connections, and to move into that space where they can see both what is happening within their organisations, and also where what is happening within wider society. They can then bring different perspectives to bear.

Advocates of ‘heroic leadership’ might argue that the new role of leaders is to be super-connectors. However, networks transmit viruses at least as effectively as they do ideas. Instead, I would return to the Hefeitz notion of alternating between the balcony and the dance floor. On the dance floor, you are engaging with your particular element of the eco-system. What the balcony allows you to do is to get some sense of how your eco-system fits within the wider picture.

3. Dynamics

In a world of continuous adaptation, standing still effectively means going backwards. Too often, faced with challenges we do not know how to handle, we unconsciously attempt a strategy of ‘Stop the world, I want to get off’, hoping that we can insulate our activity from what goes on around it. But even if we are successfully engaging with the changing world, then our very success itself affects other parts of the system, thus requiring further change and adaptation on our part.

4. Devolution

Adaptation takes place at the edge. So rather than assuming all change can somehow be centrally driven, we should instead encourage local experimentation. Recognising that change is both difficult and usually also non-linear, we should be more explorative, encouraging continual testing. In software strategies, people often talk of ‘fail often, fail fast’ (often also adding a third ‘fail cheap.’) In other words, there is a recognition that adaptation requires practice. Government sometimes suggests it is adopting this process through pilot programmes. They often fail – but they do not fail fast. Usually, by the time the formal evaluation has taken place, the agenda has already been superseded. A more effective mindset is a presumption of significant experimentation in parallel, which is what devolving achieves.

5. Learning

Another version of the software adage goes ‘fail smart, learn fast.’ Experimentation only works well if there is a proper feedback loop, so that organisations can be sure that they learn from experimentation. Adaptive organisations have to be learning organisations.

6. Emergence

In the worlds of path dependency and autopoiesis, we need to learn to use the natural momentum whenever appropriate, and otherwise to notice when adaptation is having harmful effects. To go back to the economics illustration I used to discuss systems thinking, Keynes advocated both measures to stimulate confidence, and also warned of the dangers of over-confidence.

There are three other reasons why I like this ‘KISS and CUDDLE’ formulation. Firstly, it is a phrase in distinct contrast with the more macho language of most ‘heroic leadership’ books. Secondly, as your husband/wife/partner will tell you, they can tell when you do not really mean it when kissing. Staff know when they are being dumped on. KISS requires leaders to provide some shield for staff, so that they can do their job. Thirdly, when people need a cuddle, they often want some space to ooze out some tension. Given the challenges public service organisations face, the organisational cuddle is the way for leaders to hear and feel those challenges from wider perspectives.

Joe Simpson

‘All Systems Go!’ is available online here.


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